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Family Dinners Suck

So why do I keep insisting on them?

Photo: courtneyk/iStock via Getty

WWhen I was a kid, my family ate meals together at the table, right up until my parents got the big D. I hated it. I was a very picky eater and didn’t trust that anything my mother served was edible, let alone tasty, and the table was often the combustion site of our many family tensions. My parents were stressed and no longer in love; we kids were antsy to get away and go back to our actual lives. The dinner table was a slog we all forced ourselves to endure in the name of Quality Time.

I am a bit more lax when it comes to eating all together at the table for every meal, but I do demand it for most dinners. I let my kids eat in front of the TV for breakfast so I can rush around the kitchen, feeding the dogs and making school lunches and coffee and doing last night’s dishes because I was too tired to do anything but collapse onto the couch and watch Riverdale. At lunch, I plant my youngest in his high chair in front of the TV so I can prepare the meal without worrying he’s hanging from the rafters. But at dinnertime, I ask for the TV to be off and for all of us to sit together as a family. It feels important for a variety of reasons: I want my kids to get comfortable conversing with adults, I feel less guilty if one out of three meals is at a table, and I want to check in as a family with all of us in one place.

It’s a nice idea in theory. In practice, it is hell on earth.

My boys suffer from what’s known as My-Butt-Is-On-Fire-In-This-Chair-Itis. It’s a sad condition in which they believe their chairs are lava and sitting for more than three seconds at a time will melt their glutes into a beige-ish pudding that Mom will then ask them to eat. The table, for them, is the ninth circle of kid hell, in which everything I serve them is poison and a red-faced demon is hollering about food going to waste.

You might be like, well, dearie, stop trying to make them eat raw kale! And unidentified glop! And an unpeeled orange, you monster! Stop right there. I am not the kind of mom to tiptoe over and ask Master what he would like Mommy to make for din-din and then slouch back into the kitchen to prepare four separate meals. For the most part, they eat what we eat (which is astonishingly kid-friendly — the other night I made bowtie! pasta! that had nothing on it but butter! and Parmesan! for the love of), or they eat mac and cheese. And by “they eat what we eat, or they eat mac and cheese,” I mean there are nights when they ask for mac and cheese, and I prepare mac and cheese, and then all the next day I find noodles stuck to my feet, hair, framed photos, neighbor’s car, the cashier’s necktie, a squirrel’s eyelid… They rarely eat the mac and cheese. Or anything else. They are deaf to my pleas, demands, and outright roars.

Every night, I approach the table coaching myself not to take any of it too seriously. They are five and two years old, and I am in my third trimester of pregnancy, so it’s a guaranteed shitshow. But I tell myself we will get through the next seven to 10 minutes of speed-eating while my oldest wanders the house announcing which rooms he’s farting in and my youngest yells “OUT! OUT NOW!” directly into my ear cilia and my oldest assures me he’s done, isn’t hungry—is full, in fact—and will not holler down the stairs after bedtime to ask that an entire meal be brought up on a silver tray with a single black rose weeping a diamond onto its thorn and my youngest leans over like your dad about to cut the cheese in a business meeting and craps his pants, which reminds my oldest that he also needs to poop, and I will finish my last bite (I get three bites total per night) before he yells “I’M DONE!” from the bathroom so that I know he’s ready to be wiped.

Some nights, I succeed! I am Cool Chill Mom™ who is like, “No biggie, five-year-old, I’ll see ya when I see ya, but take this apple slice with you on your journey, broheim,” and, “Woops, two-year-old, I can’t hear you ever since you shattered my eardrum, lol!” I remember not to sweat the small stuff, that dinnertime with young children is exactly why you rarely see families out at restaurants past 5 p.m. (and when you do, the parents look like their faces have been replaced by their own mugshots), that in the grand scheme of things, we are establishing a tradition, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Other nights, though. Listen. They are five and two years old, and I’m in my third trimester of pregnancy, and is it really my fault if I put my forehead directly into my bowl of chili and rage-nap while also somehow screaming about what a pointless folly life is? (All of that happens in my head. In reality, I say, “IF I HAVE TO COUNT TO THREE THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES.” And when my five-year-old is like, Oh word? What consequences? I say something like, “OH YOU’LL SEE AND YOU WILL NOT LIKE IT.” But I have rarely had to count to three, because at two he usually skedaddles back into formation, and I thank the goddess that counting to three is so ominous because I got nothin’ after three. Time-out? Call the orphanage? Threaten murder? Let me tell you something. You know what gets through to a preschooler? A passing siren and/or the promise of candy, end of list.) (Okay, and actually I have put my head down at the table and retreated deep inside myself, but it really freaks my husband out, because he then has to snap to and shovel food into our children’s tiny maws in the hopes that their eating will unbreak Mommy.)

It goes against a child’s nature to sit still. I’ve seen my child with a 104-degree fever hop from foot to foot while trying to snap his fingers and ask me about a plot point from yesterday’s Curious George. It’s a biological urge that is beyond their control, and I don’t know why I fall for the disappointment every single time. Each night, when I finally give in and agree that dinner is over, I feel like I’ve forced us all on a nature walk through a dumping ground for sewage, that we come out of it wizened and traumatized, our bonds revealed for what they actually are: only real during the good times.

But then I think about all the nights when dinners have ended with dance parties, all of us getting up from our chairs with Parmesan cheese dusting our shirts and inkblots of ketchup on our cheeks, parading into the living room so we can make each other laugh and my five-year-old can announce that he’s got skills, and I remember the best thing about children, the thing that saves them and us time and time again: In addition to the urge to move, kids have the urge to move on.

I don’t remember my mom putting her forehead on the table and escaping into herself. I do, however, remember her throwing a turkey at my father’s head. So tonight I’ll make veggie burgers. Or pizza. Or dry cereal rattling around on a plastic plate. It truly doesn’t matter, because the end result is the same: a total mess, but one we made together.

Lindsay Hunter is the author of two story collections and two novels, most recently Eat Only When You’re Hungry. She lives in Chicago.

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